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And I thought I was being clever ? getting an automatic door mechanism for the chicken coop, I mean. In case you haven?t seen one of these, they are dinky little photosensitive devices operated by two AA batteries, which are said to last up to 18 months before needing to be changed.

The idea is that instead of having to remember to shut the chooks up at night or let them out in the morning, you simply leave it to the automatic door mechanism. It closes the door at full dark (that is, after the birds have trooped into the coop) and opens it again at broad daylight. This sort of labour-saving implement appealed to me. And, as with most new gadgets, I found myself enthusing about it long before I could claim to have given it a thorough troop trial.

My friends were deeply sceptical about it. ?Just you wait until the damn thing locks a badger inside,? one said, betraying more than a mere hint of wishful thinking. There is a deep-seated feeling in some people that relying too heavily on technology can only ever end in tears. There are no real short cuts in life, goes the theory, and attempts to avoid hard work will meet their just rewards.

And so it was in my case. Or so local legend now has it. However, being a forward-thinking, progressive sort, I still stand by my battery-driven box of tricks. In truth, it never actually failed ? the mechanism worked perfectly. It?s simply that the foxes worked better.

Evidence of fowl play

You see, all was going well with my new acquisition for a couple of weeks. Then, one morning, as I went to let the dogs out of the kennel, I noticed an ominous trail of feathers stretching across the lawn. And, sure enough, one of our chickens was missing. The next day, two more had gone. That night, I lifted the lid of the coop and, yes, the survivors were tucked inside, safe from fang and claw, with the door properly lowered by the automatic closing mechanism.

But, by the time I was up and about next morning, disaster had struck. The fox (or badger?) had simply waited for the automatic door to open, and then helped itself to a meal. The door sliding up on its battery-driven spindle must have been the equivalent of somebody putting a coin into a vending machine, or the ringing of a dinner bell. By the time I got to the scene of the crime with the dogs, there was just one poor, badly injured chicken left, huddled pathetically under a rose bush.

To make matters worse, while my back was turned I heard a muffled squawking, and turned around to see our Border terrier cheerfully savaging the luckless bird. That horrible mutt had detected the bird was injured, in the mysterious way that animals do, and had no compunction whatsoever in laying into it. That poor hen ? betrayed by a beastly friend. After this unpleasant episode, our Border terrier was officially labelled the NLD (nasty little dog), as distinct from our immaculately behaved Labrador, which is the VGD (very good dog).

That evening, my eldest son vowed he would put the remains of the hen out as bait just before first light, and sit up with a rifle. ?Er, what time is dawn?? he asked ? a question that said so much.

Needless to say, the next morning, when I went to release the NLD and the VGD, there was no sign of the ardent slayer of foxes. Instead, emanating from his bedroom was a sound like a warthog being strangled underwater. I wonder when that boy last saw the sunrise.

Some more chickens have been ordered. This time, however, I am going to let the automatic door release them into a run, whose own door I shall shut or open myself when it is safe. Which negates the entire point of an automatic door, my son pointed out, unhelpfully. But then, what does he know?

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